METM21 Online Chronicles: Clare Vassallo

Negotiating literary translation: author’s signature, translator’s style and publisher’s preferences

Clare E. Vassallo, Associate Professor of Translation Studies at the University of Malta, addressed various aspects of negotiating literary translation projects and urged her listeners to reflect on what “sameness” actually means. As an Italian-to-English translator, I personally appreciated how fortunate Clare was to have studied under Umberto Eco, whom she mentioned several times. Her use of the Montalbano series, written by Sicilian author Andrea Camilleri and translated by Stephen Sartarelli, to illustrate the challenges of negotiating literary translation was also widely appreciated by the audience. Indeed, the many thought-provoking citations from authors, translators and critics in the initial portion of her presentation made for a well-rounded overview of the topic.

One of my favourite quotes was: “Only in being literally unfaithful can a translator succeed in being faithful to the source text” (Umberto Eco). Such ironies formed the meat of Clare’s talk. She beautifully expressed the fact that “the style, so to speak, is an intrinsic aspect of the meaning. In other words, style is not separable from meaning”. It is this very point that may cause tension between authors, translators, editors and publishing houses, all of whom are guided by their own priorities. She explained that the translator’s interpretation of the text is like a guide taking the reader upon a perilous journey across the gap that exists between any two languages, any original text and the translated version of it, which is where negotiation comes in.

According to Umberto Eco, “deep reading” is like negotiating, where each party desires “impossible equivalents”, and “faithfulness” in literary translation is based on the belief that translation is a type of interpretation, where the intention of the text is more important than the intention of the author. I found this concept quite poignant and reminiscent of conversations I’ve had with Italian authors when translating their texts. Many authors claim they’re recognisable by their style across all their work. However, critic Tim Parks asserts “they don’t want to believe that the majority of their readers aren’t reading them”. What many of those authors fail to grasp, said Clare, is that translators can rarely be faithful to words or syntax, which are unique to each language and often don’t transfer. Therefore, what we read in a translation is actually the translator’s writing.

She concluded her talk by describing the battle for the recognition of translators’ contributions to the world of literature. She gave several examples of other fields where artists are acclaimed for their interpretations of others’ work, e.g. Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. She also mentioned how world literature courses discuss the style and language of books as if they weren’t translations. Though seemingly obvious, I had never thought of either example, both of which I found extremely relevant. Clare ended on a positive note: it’s becoming easier to negotiate with publishers for the acknowledgement of translators thanks to the industry’s current movement, advocating for our voices to no longer be ignored.

This METM21 Online presentation was chronicled by Courtney Greenlaw.

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